Mériam Korichi invited me to prepare a ten-minute speech for a Symposium of Love that she was hosting at the annual Night of Philosophy. Realizing I didn’t have anything to say about love, I thought about how I might begin to answer the question: What is love? What unfolded was a conversation with the various thinkers I love most dearly.
Love’s Secret Wish
When those before us imagined man in a state of chaos, they never imagined love. There was only an indiscriminate sense of self. Man left alone to wander, gesturing wildly in the state of nature.
Can you imagine walking in circles, day after day, experiencing life in abandonment? And then, one afternoon, finding a secret note folded between the pages of a book? A note that contained your most longed-for wish? What would it take to unfold that paper?
Knowledge and love interwoven, the propensities that follow us throughout our lives are born in the youth of our awakening. Each love can only become what came before, so we never stop looking for it in the future. Hours spent staring at kitchen tables and night-stands, wooden arches of doorframes, too weak to walk through. Fear impinges and fuels desire. I long for you to see me as I think I am, as she did. Can there ever be recognition of such hidden longing? To be loved by everyone who knew me was my most ardent wish. Yes, this would-be evidence of love. The fulfilment of secret desires.
I imagine love much like this, boyish and naïve, burning with hope. Finding such joy in his failures, falling at the feet of an imperious mistress, obeying her mandates, imploring pardon . Inflamed by the imagination, these are the most exquisite enjoyments love, when loving is querulous.
Eros as Means to Liberation
On cannot understand Eros unless they fully understand Freud’s conception of libidinal energy. The petit-bourgeois romance you are so attached to remains beneath the veil of the Reality Principle. The only means to liberation we have within repressive society is Eros, not love the way you think of it. Eros is by its very nature polymorphously perverse, freed from the demands of productive society. Only when we take charge of our libidinal energy will we be able to free ourselves from the repressive nature of love.
Loving is more Important than Love
Most men are “Pleasure Seekers”, moving from woman to woman. You have no idea how to escape from the freedom you so desire. Can’t you see that all of your loves are the exact same? Your understanding of love is juvenile, irrational, and regressive.
If you want to understand love, you must understand loving as an art form. It is not just a feeling. It is a decision, a judgment, and a promise. It is not natural, it requires discipline and faith. Today all anyone cares about is being loved. People do not stop to think about what it means to give love, to engage in the act of loving. We must think about what it means to love ourselves and others. This is what distinguishes us from animals! Our capacity for self-awareness, our capacity to offer love.
We should not do away with love, or free love in the way some desire, but rather we must learn to be critical of égoïsme à deux and pseudo-love. These forms of Western love are sentimental, and problematic. Two people cannot wholly rely upon one another to experience a sense of completion. Our existential anxiety will not be solved by one another, it can only be solved by ourselves when we learn to love ourselves properly. We cannot truly love others until we learn to see them in an unselfish way.
No Good Love
What do we see when we look at love? Despair! Verzweiflung!
There is no right to love. Instead, we are constantly being rejected by love, which somehow in turn makes us want to believe in love all the more! This is evidence of its repressive nature. Love’s rejection makes a plea for justice, to right the wrong of recognition, which belies the hope for a better world. This is the refusal of romantic love. You have denied me and so I must deny you! The idea that loving can be done well is an illusion. Our attempts at loving are just another artifact of commodity culture which tells us to wager ourselves as a form of exchange. We relinquish all autonomy in the hopes that we might find something of ourselves out there, and we are left with a little less of ourselves each time another leaves us. Yes, there is no such thing as good love.
Still, we want to believe in love! Overcome by this recognition, we cast ourselves back out into the world. If there is no right of love, then what is this undeniable sense? Love is mine and never wholly mine. I cannot grant love alone, and yet I alone must love. But how am I to love? The idea that it can be done well is an illusion. We mistake fate for justice, and fall into a quixotic trap. This is the treachery of romantic love. We can discern justice, but fate is always escaping us.
Loving without Hope
If you want to understand love you have to have a poetic spirit. Do you remember Breton’s Nadja? The image of a madman wondering the streets, intoxicated, sick with love? He is so overwhelmed by his desire to be near his lover, the least glimpse of her is a weak, messianic moment.
In love, time ceases to exist. We are thrown into the Jetztzeit! What ruin!
Love is a form of destruction. Frailty born into the very flesh of man. We long after what must destroy us. This is why the true delights of love are not experienced at first sight, but last. If we understand this, then we can understand that each love is experienced as unique. The idea that love might be reproduced, re-made over and over again, is the layman’s mechanical folly. He who only cares about the beginning of love is doomed to wander from love to love until he dies.
This is why, the only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope. We must never arrive at love, only appreciate her from a distance, so that she might be born again. We must remain at the ends of love, in the spacious, destructive capacity of her enchantment.
Loving without Mourning
How are we supposed to love without mourning? What an honorific Lack! Solemn resignation.
Caught between the desire to devour, and the desire to remain alone, I can only love you if you remain yourself. That is, a self apart from me, the subject and object of your own making. I must see you there, in that well of my desire, reflecting back all that is holy.
Two can only be re-made as one but for a brief, quivering moment. It is a moment of cruelty. The fulfilment of a promise that can only ever be broken. This is why cruelty becomes love. Each cut, each lash is a sign of that fleeting ecstasy. That reparation. A sensation of pleasurable torture, of pungent cruelty. Anvil or hammer, both. Samson laying at the feet of Delilah, cruel laughter of Apollo. What divine elation, wrapped around most monstrous deeds.
This is what you look at when you look at love: flesh made sacred.
How to Love the World
Love by its very nature cannot be made public. Love is not only apolitical, but it is the most anti-political of all human forces. When we fall in love we are forced to retreat from the world, into the bosom of another. This form of love is of no concern to us political thinkers. No. The question we ought to be thinking about instead is: Why is it so difficult to love the world? This is the question we face today. How might we find a way to be among one another in our humanness? We who do such horrible things. We who abandon our friends, turning our backs on the world when the world turns it back on us.
When the chips are down, we can only ever try to understand love. We cannot make sense of the irrational. We must be committed to, as Benjamin says, returning in a round-a-about way to love as an object of contemplation. Love, much like thinking, belongs in the private realm of human affairs. At best, I hope that at the end of the day, when I go home I might find some joy in my solitude. I might find a way to be with the world that has followed me inside and engage in the 2-in-1 dialogue. There in the private realm is where we come face-to-face with the question of love.
There, I read Auden, Rilke, Homer. Yes, there, they bring me closer to loving the world. Closer to the opening that unfolds beyond the horizon of human deeds, nearer the path of Being. Nearer to beginning again. Alone with myself, love reborn in every thought.
Love: Returning Again, in a Roundabout Way
And here again, we must venture toward love. Sleepy and arriving late. Heavy in a silken haze, wondering at her beauty. For she is already leaving. Even in our state near slumber, we keep our eyes open to see her radiance. Just a glance is enough to keep us here.
Samantha Rose Hill is Assistant Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College and a Visiting Assistant Professor of Politics.